Helping East African artisans find a market for their products
Before coming to the United States to pursue graduate studies in 2006, Ritah Nakandi was a member of the Uganda Women Entrepreneurs Association through which she trained, mentored, and counseled artisans to start and grow businesses selling their handcrafted goods. Despite tremendously hard work and creativity, however, they inevitably encountered the same problem: a limited market for their products.
The Newton resident, who has since earned a master’s degree in in pastoral ministry at Boston College and an MBA at Cambridge College, remains committed to helping East African women support their families through skills passed down for generations. Nakandi, who is also cofounder and recruiting director for Meetcaregivers, launched the Afri-root Collective in June 2013 to sell their wares online and at craft shows. A portion of each sale is reinvested to train others, especially women, to develop their own artistic skills and work toward sustainability.
Q. What are some examples of your products?
A. My bestseller is a set of six placemats plus a table runner made from natural raffia fiber and colored viscose threads. Customers love their uniqueness and patterns. I also sell a lot of handbags made from fig tree bark, with hand-stitched designs. We have various products that are beautifully made. My goal is to get some of them in stores.
Q. How do customers find you?
A. Shows are listed on the website, and I send e-mails to let customers know when I’m coming back to their area. A number of people return to support me. It’s the best feeling.
Q. What about your business resonates so strongly with customers?
A. The artisans in Uganda are single mothers or grandmothers caring for their grandchildren, victims of domestic abuse, or are living with HIV. They practice the same art forms that have existed for 600 years, without electricity. There is no free education, so without an income, their kids cannot go to school.
Q. What keeps you going?
A. The workload involved is challenging, but I love it because I am making a difference in someone’s life. I know what the women in my country go through, so whatever helps them put food on the table, I will do.
The Afri-root Collective is exhibiting Nov. 19 at Brookline Arts Center from 12 to 3 p.m., and at the Waldorf School of Lexington holiday fair on Dec. 1, 7 to 9 p.m., and Dec. 2, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit afri-rootcollective.com.